Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/4E PF VR (FX) - Review / Test Report
Lens Reviews - Nikon / Nikkor (full format)

Review by Markus Stamm, published May 2017

Introduction

Lens announcements come in two shapes: those that are widely expected and those that come as a big surprise. With the Nikkor AF-S 300m f/4 PF VR, Nikon managed to deliver both at once.

Rumors of an optically stabilized version of the AF-S 300/4 were floating around for quite a while already (and many would agree it was long overdue), but the way Nikon designed the lens was completely unexpected: for the first time, they incorporated a diffractive fresnel element that allows for a much shorter physical size than the actual focal length. Hence the PF in the lens' name, which is short for the marketing name 'Phase Fresnel' of that special element.

For Canon users this is not really exciting news. Canon announced its first DO ('Diffractive Optics') lens in 2001... but not many thereafter, two to be precise. This might have been due to the unique characteristics of a diffractive element. It does have its advantages, especially when it comes to the size and weight of the final product, but tends to show nasty flare in backlight conditions.

So the question is, how Nikon managed to address these issues on their first PF lens.

Let's have a look.

Even when aware of the design advantages mentioned above, the first encounter with the 300/4 PF VR is a moment of disbelief: "wait... THIS is a 300?". The lens is amazingly compact for its focal length, just a little longer than for example the Sigma Art 85/1.4 (which, admittedly, is quite a brick).

And there is more disbelief right around the corner, as soon as you discover the price tag. At the time of this review, the lens retails for 1800 EUR. That's a hefty price increase compared to the non-stabilized predecessor.

You do get a lot for your money, though, at least in terms of build quality. The whole lens feels very solid, with a high quality plastic barrel based on a metal mount. A bayonet mount hood as well as a protective pouch are included in the package, a tripod collar however isn't (more on that below).

Feature-wise the lens is up to date. Autofocus is operated by a slient-wave drive, so very fast and virtually noiseless. The physical length of the lens remains constant during focus operation and the front element does not rotate.

As all recent (and likely all future) Nikkor lenses, it comes with an electronically controlled aperture and is, of course, a G-type lens and thus does not have an aperture ring.

The Nikkor is compatible with all current Nikon AF-S teleconverters (TC-14E III, TC-17E II, TC-20E III), but offers AF with TC-17 and TC-20 only on cameras which have an AF-system that works down to f/8.

VR

We usually don't dedicate a headline to this feature, but in case of the AF-S 300/4 PF, the efficiency of the VR module (or lack thereof) was and still is a hot topic in many forums, even after Nikon confirmed a VR issue on some of the early production models. For the affected lenses, Nikon offered a firmware fix.

The issue, as it was confirmed by a service advisory, led to blurred images when the lens was used on cameras of the D800 series (D800/D800E/D810) at shutter speeds around 1/125 s.

We don't use (or even own) a D800-series camera, but happened to have a copy of the lens from the affected range of serial numbers. And surprisingly, the efficiency of that lens' VR module was indeed below average, or at least below our expectations, even though we only used it on the D3x (where according to Nikon there shouldn't have been any issues at all). After the lens was updated by Nikon, the results were much better. It might be that this particular copy had a different issue that was either also fixed by the firmware updated or addressed directly while it was at the local Nikon service point.

Later copies (this review is based on the results of three lenses) out of the box performed identically to the first one (after the update).

However, many D800/D810 users still complain about blurred images. There are hints that this blur is a result of the mirror slap of these cameras. Some users report that mounting an additional grip to their cameras fixed the issue for them.

While we're at it: as already mentioned, for this review the lens was used on the D3x only. But even on this camera the efficiency of the VR seemed a little lower than for example with the AF-S 80-400 VR (which happened to be in the test lab at the same time). This applies to all shutter speeds, though. And it might just be a result of individual shooting habits (rather than a VR issue). It may sound a little strange, but at least in the author's case it seems that the low weight of the PF lens more easily induces motion blur, compared to heavier lenses.

In any case: if you consider buying this lens, you should have a close look at the VR efficiency on your camera under your intended shooting conditions.

Tripod collar

Another topic that deserves a closer look is the optional tripod collar RT-1 (which is also compatible with the AF-S 70-200/4 VR). Unlike with other Nikkor lenses in this price range (or the predecessor of the PF VR), it's an optional accessory that sets you back another 190 EUR.

Nikon doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to tripod collars and unfortunately the RT-1 doesn't change that. It's ok for monopod use, but if you need really stable support, it just doesn't cut it. In fact, our MTF lab results with the RT-1 were worse than without (with the camera mounted to the tripod).

Good news is that there are 3rd party offerings filling this gap in Nikon's expertise.

Specifications
Optical construction16 elements in 10 groups including 1 PF and 1 ED element
Number of aperture blades9 (rounded)
min. focus distance1.4 m (max. magnification ratio 1:4.2)
Dimensions89 x 147.5 mm
Weight755 g
Filter size77 mm (non-rotating)
Hoodbarrel-shaped (bayonet mount, supplied)
Other featuresLens provides distance (D) information to the camera, Silent Wave AF motor, Optical stabilization (VR)